Friday 30 November 2018

Indie spotlight: Remembering Shanghai by Claire Chao

Indie spotlight focuses on self-publishing and indie authors.

Hawaii-based, Hong-Kong-born Claire Chao is the co-author, with her mother Isabel Sun Chao, of Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, published by the indie publisher, Plum Brook.

Remembering Shanghai follows five generations of the Chao family over two centuries, from the time of Claire's great-great-grandfather down to the present. Mother and daughter traced their family story as far back as they could. Claire's great-great-grandfather rose from poverty to become a minister to the empress dowager, and built a large portfolio comprising hundreds of properties, a bank and a shipping company.

Isabel Sun Chao, the memoir's main protagonist, grew up the third daughter among six siblings in glamorous 1930s and ’40s Shanghai - everyone’s favorite child, cosseted by servants, wet nurses, cooks, drivers, even a resident tailor.

Soon after Mao came to power in 1949, Isabel journeyed to Hong Kong. Clutching a pink suitcase packed with party dresses to wear on her spring holiday, she didn’t realize that she would never see her father, or her grandmother, again. Claire accompanied her to Shanghai nearly 60 years later to confront her family’s past, one that they would together discover to be by turns harrowing and heartwarming.

Claire here discusses why she and her mother decided to write a family memoir, and gives advice to other indie authors.

My mother always looks forward, not back, probably in part due to her optimistic nature, and in part as a survival mechanism while building a new life. She now lives in Hong Kong, and after her first return to Shanghai, in 1978, she never wanted to go back again. But I accompanied her in 2008, and we visited her family home together. For the first time I asked, and she responded to, many questions about our family and her childhood. It didn’t take long for me to realize that our stories had the makings of a unique insider’s look into a Shanghai family.

After the first stage of oral history from family and friends, it was my job to research. That was when the marvelous characters, unbelievable situations and brushes with fate that Mom had described to me fell into place, against the epic backdrop of modern Chinese history.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, my ancestors were as much a cast of scoundrels and eccentrics as of pleasure seekers and luminaries. My relatives had dealings with all sorts of famous and infamous figures, from the empress dowager to Shanghai’s most notorious gangsters, so they had to be researched as well. We were also extremely fortunate to have had access to the work of my mother’s only brother, one of the most prolific writers in post-Mao China, specializing in books on Shanghai nostalgia.

Authenticity was vitally important to Mom and me: thankfully, no one insisted that we glorify or sugarcoat the past; nor did we need to hide the juicy details!

I expected the process to take a year or two, and it ended up taking ten to publication. Research, writing, editing, design, self-publishing, marketing - it takes time to get it just right. The first challenge was the overabundance of interesting stories and information - condensing and conveying them in a logical, readable, well-paced way, even before attempting to address creative embellishments and stylistic nuances.

It took a couple years of experimentation to establish the format that interweaves my mother’s and my voices. While this was useful for presenting dual perspectives, it could potentially cause confusion. We use my mother’s voice, often in a childlike tone, to relate the primary first-person narrative; I step in periodically, signaled by a change to italics, to provide historical and cultural context, or commentary that requires a more adult, objective voice.

We added sidebars at the end of many chapters. These highlight sociocultural topics, such as the naming of relatives, the rules of mahjong, and the importance of ancestor worship, without interrupting the main narrative.

Our original idea was to allow each chapter to come across as a short story, so the manuscript had no clear chronology. As our stories expanded and evolved, so too did the integral role of historic events and our thematic threads through the passage of time. It wasn’t until nine years into the project that we decided to re-order the narrative into a proper chronology, bringing me perilously close to a nervous breakdown! But it was well worth it in terms of improving the pace and tension of the story.

The book has more than 90 characters, mostly with Chinese names. We were careful to be as simple as possible with monikers and relationships, for the sake of readers unfamiliar with things Chinese. For example, anticipating that the actual names of two brothers, Jingzhai and Zhizhai, would cause no end of confusion, we dubbed them “No. 4” and “No. 7.” Lu Yongxiang and his son Lu Xiaojia became “Senior Lu” and “Junior Lu.”

For ready reference, we also included a map, a family tree, a glossary and a guide to old and new place names.

Our aim is that Remembering Shanghai gives readers a strong visual as well as literary experience. In addition to family photographs, we commissioned original watercolor illustrations by two artists, one younger, to create whimsical little tableaux, the other, more mature, for the more complex scenes. And I spent many hours searching for historical illustrations, some of which had rarely or never been published. The resulting collection of 160 illustrations is one reason why we self-published: a commercially-minded publishing house is certain to have radically reduced the visuals.

Ah, and the marketing! They don’t tell you the fabulous life of an author closely resembles that of a traveling salesman. Normally, I like to travel with only carry-on baggage. Since launching the book, I’ve schlepped three suitcases of clothes, props and books on multi-city tours! Paying to ship books ahead would cost more than the books themselves.

Our marketing is a bit more complicated because the book’s Shanghai and Hong Kong locales mean that there’s a natural interest in those markets, so we have to tackle international marketing and distribution outside the US. My printer is in Hong Kong and Shenzhen; my “warehouses” are in Hong Kong and in Honolulu, in my mother’s tv room and my garage; my publicists have been New York- and Shanghai-based. Since the book came out, I’ve done events in Honolulu, Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Singapore, with California, Beijing and Suzhou planned for spring 2019. Added to the mix, my filmmaker partner, who’s collaborating with me to develop a drama series based on the book, is based in San Francisco.

Then there’s the technical aspect of presenting to book clubs and the like, where the venue doesn’t offer a computer whiz to facilitate. I’ve had to figure out how to operate my PowerPoint presentation and slideshow/trailer MP4s in concert with projectors, screens, portable monitors, HDMI and VGA cables, adaptors and extension cords - more than once crawling on the floor and cursing behind the dust-laden backs of tv sets minutes before my talk!

Self-publishing is not for the fainthearted. But, perhaps like a love affair with a demanding mistress, it’s very, very gratifying when it all works.

Although an author must often write in a lonely vacuum, I suggest you resist the temptation to ask the advice of too many friends along the way, unless you’re certain that from their professional experience and pragmatic nature they’ll give you sound, productive advice. In my experience, many of these discussions, far from being useful, ended up causing me unwanted detours, confusion and even bruised confidence.

Believe in your own vision, at least in the early stages, and develop your own voice. You can get others to help refine it later.

While it’s important to work intensively to gather material and to build layers and detail, it’s equally critical to have occasional hiatuses to read your own writing objectively. This will help you get out of that gigantic pile of leaves that you’re immersed in, and to take an aerial view; to see the trees, indeed, the forest, again. It can only be accomplished through periodic absence - like that unsolvable crossword puzzle clue you come back to the next day, and know the answer instantly.

Details: Remembering Shanghai has received two Independent Author Network awards, including Best Memoir winner and Book of the Year, second place. It is available from  and Amazon.